Saturday, April 30, 2011

Whisky Review: Springbank 15 Years

Single Malt
Non-chill Filtered
Style/Region: Campbeltown
Age: 15 Years
Alcohol: 46%

Water added: yes
Nose: Brine, oak, sherry, and fruit - apricot. After water was added a sweet and peppery oak with brine.
Mouth Feel: creamy, slightly oily
Flavor: Complex – sweet and sour with peppery flavors.
Finish: Sweet and complex, oak and pepper flavors linger

Overall Impressions: Subtle and complex. In all honesty, Campbeltown Scotch has always been a bit of a mystery to me – though I’ve only had the opportunity to drink Springbank so far. Before I embarked on this journey of sitting back to truly taste the whisky and put my thoughts to it, I’ve not been impressed with Springbank – I’ve always considered it good, just not as good as it seems it should be based on what I keep hearing of it. But now I’m forced to revise my opinion. I can finally taste the subtle difference between the Campbeltown and Highland styles – before I pretty much found them to be the same. Subtle and complex are the two words that really say it all – so subtle that it’s very easy (as I did in the past) to look right past this scotch. That is a mistake – it’ll never have the bang of a really good Islay or the smooth sweetness of Highland, but it is its own beast and it’s the better for it.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Some Interesting Sh!t

It's been a while since I've done a link post, but enough things have caught my eye over the past few days that I think it's worth it. So, enjoy!

Thursday, April 21, 2011

An Evening with Daniel Abraham

So last night Daniel Abraham was in Phoenix for his first ever book tour (a momentous one-stop tour) at The Poisoned Pen in Scottsdale, Arizona (lots of signed books available from there). I managed to tweak my schedule to attend – and I’m glad I did. I got my books signed and chatted with him in a pretty interment round-table setting for nearly 2 hours. Daniel is fun, interesting, funny and very smart guy who was a joy to talk with for a couple of hours. Most of the event is actually available on a web-cast if you’re interested. It covers a lot of ground from his background, the Clarion workshop, to writing, to e-books, to various author stories (including what authors bitch about at the bar), the books, and more. Daniel and I (and another attendee Raul) sort of started the conversation 30-minutes early and that was great (and not covered by the webcast). We talked about the books and quite a bit about the transfer from Tor books to Orbit books. It was a frank and informative conversation and one I’ll not share all of the details for – but Daniel views the move as a great opportunity for his career and I couldn’t agree more. The rest of the interview was at times frustrating since the bookstore employee felt the need to lead the discussion and cover the talking points on his note cards – since he hadn’t actually read any of Daniel’s writing much of that was the generic stuff that always gets asked, that so many find interesting, yet bores me.

Anyway, go watch the webcast – it’s nearly an hour and half long, so there is a lot to see. Oh, and go buy Daniel’s books – I really enjoyed The Dragon’s Path (The Book Depository, Powell's Books, Indiebound) and will make sure that I read more of his books.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Whisky Review: A.D. Rattray Cask Collection: Bowmore Distillery

Single Malt
Individual Cask Bottling
Non-chill Filtered

Style/Region: Islay
Age: 14 Year
Barrel: Bourbon Oak
Distilled Date: March 27, 1996
Bottle Date: August, 4 2010
Alcohol: 59.1%

Water added: yes
Nose: smoke and peat. After water was added a sweet, briny nose comes through and the smoke and peat diminish somewhat.
Mouth Feel: thick and oily
Flavor: sweet smoke and pepper. Less smoke and peat then expected
Finish: strong and complex, peppery, brine, long lingering peat smoke

Overall Impressions: This is a very nice scotch and an excellent example of the Islay style. The smoke and peat flavors are very present, but don’t overwhelm, though they certainly linger long afterward. As with most Islay scotch, this isn’t a subtle drink, or overly complex – but I’ve come to love the strong smoke and peat flavor, possibly above all else in scotch. One of the best aspects of this drink is that it comes in full cask strength and allows me to water it down to the level I prefer. This whisky invokes a cold, damp and drizzly day with a mist hiding the surroundings – in a good way. This drink is reminiscent of my visit to Cadenhead’s Whisky Shop on the Royal Mile in Edinburgh – that is the moment I transformed from a novice whisky drinker into a blissful addict as I chatted and sampled for over an hour (free of charge) before making a modest purchase (and it was a cold, damp and drizzly day).

A.D. Rattray is a distributer and independent bottler that takes whisky from around Scotland and bottles it directly, without watering down, dying, or chill filtration. The principle purpose of this old merchant company in modern times is to bottle unusual and exclusive casks of scotch whisky chosen to reflect the six individual whisky regions of Scotland. This is my first bottle of A.D. Rattray, and I’m very impressed. It won’t be my last. I got a couple of bottles at BevMo, and for the price, it can’t be beat.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Review: Son of Heaven (Chung Kuo 01) by David Wingrove

In 1989 David Wingrove published the first volume of the eight-book Chung Kuo series. Due to pressures from the publisher, the final volume of that series was unsatisfying to both Wingrove and fans of the series. Fast forward to the present and Chung Kuo is getting a complete revision from Wingrove and Corvus Books. Two prequels will be added to the series, the final book will receive a near-complete re-write and be divided into two books and the original eight will be heavily revised and further divided into smaller books, bringing the re-booted series to a total of 20 books. Son of Heaven (Book Depository, Powell’s Books, Indiebound) is the first volume of the new (and improved?) series, a prequel to the original series.

I never read and books from the original series, though I’ve been curious about them as I continually see them on shelves at used bookstores. I imagine that the people and events of Son of Heaven will have greater meaning to those that have read the books previously, but for me it was a blank slate – in a lot of ways, a wonderfully blank slate.

In the year 2043 the world is in a dark place – the US and China are engaged in a cold war and Western societies have reached a point where they wall off the privileged and leave the rest to fend for themselves. Jake is a hotshot trader, possibly the best in the UK, and living a large life. Jake is one of the first to notice something is wrong in the virtual marketplace that runs the economy – the prelude to the strike that destroys the world’s economy. Timed with strategic assassinations, the destruction of the world economy literally ends civilization.

Twenty years later Jake is a father making his way in an isolated village in the west of England. Crops are grown, goods traded at the market, disease can no longer be treated, and the land is plagued by armed bandits – though it’s an improvement over the chaos immediately after the fall. It’s an existence – one that Jake and the others living in their small, isolated corner of the world know can’t last. Then the Chinese come.

Son of Heaven is told through a limited number of viewpoints bouncing from 2065 to the year of the fall in 2043. Since the narrative begins in 2065, we know what will happen at the end of the 2043 story arc, just not the details. It’s the brilliant storytelling of Wingrove that makes it work. Wingrove instantly sucks you into his horrific post-apocalyptic future through his characters – principally, Jake. The simple act of walking through a field to get to the village becomes an adventure with the reader hanging on every word. This is greatest strength of Son of Heaven – the consummate storytelling of Wingrove.

The world of science fiction is rife with versions of Western society’s apocalypse. Son of Heaven does as admirable job of providing the goods on the fall of civilization, though it doesn’t stand out of the field. The near-future evolution of the internet, virtual reality and the integration of economics are presented nicely, if not entirely original. While it’s all believable while you’re reading, it does seem a bit implausible that the entire society could be taken out so quickly by a hugely complex plan devised by a single individual that executes perfectly. However, that’s not so much of an issue with strength of Wingrove’s storytelling.

As with all near-future apocalyptic stories, Wingrove’s version of the fall certainly has what would be considered a political/ideological flavor to it. While the economics of capitalism aren’t shown overly favorable, neither are they demonized – the demonization seems reserved for the political right. Wingrove’s future isn’t pretty and it’s a future shaped by the right. But again, while present, it doesn’t play much a role in the novel beyond the vehicle for the collapse – which brings us to the Chinese.

Wingrove has clearly done a lot of research into the history of China, its people and its interactions with the West. However, the portrayal of the Chinese is rather stereotypical and unfriendly – after all, they are the big bad villain in the story. Reading such a portrayal is very unsettling at times, but that seems to be the point. The presence of a very likable Chinese general who rises above the stereotypes only serves to reinforce them. The Chinese are equally stereotypical about the British. I get the feeling that Wingrove will spend a lot time in future volumes playing with the notion of stereotypes of peoples and cultures – or perhaps the Chinese are just painfully stereotyped.

One aspect of Son of Heaven that I find fascinating is the interplay of the past and future with a castle overlooking the small village Jake has settled in. It’s a beautifully presented thematic arc – modern society crumbles, in a way sending people back in time to a village overlooked by the ruins of an ancient castle. Both Jake and the Chinese general at times express a love and respect for this ancient past. However, the stalwart castle is eventually destroyed in the onslaught of the new Chinese Empire as they forge ahead with their vision of the future and effectively end Western civilization. I find this so powerful because I’m a child of the American west (or close enough), a place without the deep roots of Europe or China that can be so integrated into the modern existence that they get overlooked.

Son of Heaven kicks off the re-booted Chung Kuo series with a bang. It’s addicting stuff – addicting enough that I don’t have heartburn about embarking on a 20-book series (at least the page counts look to average less than 400). 8/10

Friday, April 08, 2011

Whisky Review: The Balvenie 15 Year Single Barrel

Single Malt
Style/Region: Speyside
Age: 15 Year
Barrel: Single, Traditional Oak Cask
Bottle Date: October, 14 2009
Alcohol: 47.8%

Water added: yes
Nose: Honey, fruit, apricot, light vanilla
Mouth Feel: Smooth, slightly oily
Flavor: Sweet and sour, spicy, peppery
Finish: tart, spicy, peppery, oak

Overall Impressions of The Balvenie 15 Year Single Barrel: This is a smooth, spicy and complex scotch whiskey. Probably friendly as an introductory scotch for the novice, though not as friendly as some of the other Balvenie whiskies. Balvenie is a scotch I continually come back to. I like the variety of its offerings and the sweet smoothness that characterizes so many of them. However I must admit that part of it is probably that it has several good offerings at a price point I’m willing to pay (<$100) and is relatively easy for me to find. My wife has indicated that she thinks she’d like scotch if she gave it a try (this came about from me adding some to her chamomile tea once). She’s not a big drinker, but Balvenie is probably what I’d use to introduce her to scotch – though imagine it would be one of their other varieties since the Single Barrel is so peppery and complex.

Of Whisky and Books

One of the things I look for when I decide to follow a blog or not is a personal touch. Yes, the majority of blogs I follow fall into the niche of SFF books, but reviews are not enough. I need a blog to have personality. One of the best ways for a blog to establish a personality is to post about things beyond the SFF world of an interest to the blogger. Admittedly, my own blog generally fails this test, though I try to establish personality through pretty much everything I write.

However, I’ve now decided – with the chiding of Mark Charan Newton – that I will branch out into the world of blogging about drinking – specifically scotch/whiskey/whisky and the occasional bourbon or other whisky variant. Sure if it takes off I may branch into some my other drinking habits – such as beer or wine, but for now I’ll sticking to whisky – mostly single-malt scotch whisky, though from time to time I will explore other versions of the water of life.

Now, I’m even less qualified to review whisky than I am books. Sure, I love the drink. And to me it fits well with things around here because after everyone else in the house has gone to bed I can usually be found relaxing on the couch with a book and nice glass of scotch. But I can’t see me being one of those reviewers who can list off 7 or 10 flavors that I taste in the whisky. No, I’ll be more basic – a few flavors and my overall ‘feel’ of it. Maybe I’ll even attempt to be clever or humorous about it. Though of course I’ve done research on how to do it ‘properly’. I suspect that I’ll actually take notes over the course of several occasions before I distill it all into a review.

I’ll come back and edit this post to list the reviews I’ve done.

Cheers! Salud! Na Zdravi! Kampai! Noroc! Sláinte! Or however you prefer…

Wednesday, April 06, 2011

New Steven Erikson Interview

There is a new interview with Steven Erikson up over at Pat's Fantasy Hotlist. Myself, a couple other bloggers, and the fans over at Malazan helped out with the questions. Sure I'm biased, but I think it's a great interview. And I knew that Erikson was Cotillion! It's also pretty cool that he called out my review of the series - that felt good.

Review: The Dragon’s Path by Daniel Abraham

Daniel Abraham became a critical favorite with his Long Prince Quartet that unfortunately never translated into wide popularity. As a result he has re-booted his career, writing under the pen names of James S.A. Corey and M.L.N. Hanover as well as Daniel Abraham, and switched publishers. Now he has a new fantasy quintet*, The Dagger and The Coin, with its first book, The Dragon’s Path recently released (Book Depository, Powell's Books, Indiebound). Where the Long Prince Quartet moved beyond the norms of epic fantasy such as the medieval European analog, The Dagger and The Coin, embraces many of epic fantasy’s traditional values and The Dragon’s Path is a promising start to this new series.

Abraham’s world is one in which humanity has risen from the ashes of a ruined civilization created by dragons. One of the many legacies of dragon rule is that humanity is the creation of 12 additional races of humanity. However, just how and why the dragon empire ended remains a mystery long lost to history.

The northern kingdom of Antea lets internal politics boil from its borders with an invasion of the Free City of Vanai to the south. This event sets the plot in motion for The Dragon’s Path as we follow four primary points of view – Geder: an outcast minor noble in the invading army, Dawson: a traditional and powerful noble working for the preservation of Antea, Marcus: a mercenary captain with a past, and Cithrin: a young ward of the Medean Bank. As the invasion nears, Cithrin is disguised and sent from Vanai with much of the wealth of the Vanai branch of the Medean Bank. Marcus is the captain of the caravan’s guards in which Cithrin is hidden. Dawson seeks to manipulate events in Vanai from afar and Geder finds himself tangled in the intrigue.

Abraham’s earlier fantasy series set out to be different from epic fantasy while The Dagger and The Coin sets out to engage the core of epic fantasy. However, it’s hard to call The Dragon’s Path a traditional epic fantasy with the twists in perception engineered by Abraham. Traditional fantasy may be embraced and honored, but its presentation is fresh.

One of the aspects that I enjoyed most in The Dragon’s Path is Abraham’s selection of the characters he tells the story through. While most will (correctly) point to Cithrin and Marcus as the most developed, most sympathetic and likeable characters and Geder as the most intriguing in terms of what is to come, Dawson gets left out. Dawson represents the traditional, conservative force so common in epic fantasy – the status quo. He is an elitist noble who thinks of everyone else as less than human, he is a bigot, and he thrives in a male-dominated, testosterone culture that is reprehensible to modern sensibility. In court politics he commands a faction that is defending against a rival group of younger nobles seeking reforms such as more power in the hands of the farmers and such. The twist is that most fantasy these days tells the story from the point of view of the reformers while Abraham chooses to tell the story from the point of view of the conservatives. It’s a classic battle of progress versus the status quo and I love how Abraham forces the reader to cheer for the traditional bad guys.

In another slight deviation from traditional epic fantasy, Abraham embraces rather than discounts the power of economy. Throughout history, much of the power of society has resided in banks or their equivalent and Abraham honors this historical reality. Cithrin is the ward of a bank just about to achieve her adulthood and freedom – but events force her to flee her home and survive without direction. As the child of bank her only real world skills are banking, and use them she does. I love the importance that Abraham gives to the banks, even if it is only just realized in this opening chapter to the series.

Marcus is the classic aged hero with a past. He is the father figure and moral guidepost. And he comes complete with a not-quite-funny sidekick. When will Marcus come out of the shell of his past and be the man he can be? Geder is the biggest mystery of the main characters. He is a would-be scholar born into a noble society that reveres manly pursuits (not scholarship). He is a tool and the whipping boy of the marching army and he makes some odd choices that lead the reader to question his moral center and even sanity – is Geder a sociopath in the making? And just who’s tool is he? The answers to these questions are only hinted at in The Dragon’s Path with resolutions (hopefully) forthcoming in future books.

For an epic fantasy, The Dragon’s Path is a bit short on battles and magic, but this is only the opening chapter of the quintet* with the second book, The King’s Blood coming in 2012 (planned). The Dragon’s Path does not stand on its own and is similar in to The Fellowship of the Ring in that it is only the beginning of one great novel. This is the introduction and the promise of magic and battles to come is laid out and many questions have been raised with few answers. The Dragon’s Path wets the appetite but doesn’t deliver the meal. That is for later and I can’t wait. 8-8.5/10

*EDIT: I 'spoke' with Daniel Abraham about this and he says that the original concept was for The Dagger and The Coin to be a five book series, but he is currently under contract for only three. We'll have to wait and see what the sales are like before a final decision is made - Abraham says he can do either. SECOND EDIT: Abraham just informed me that he and Orbit have agreed on 5 books - now they just need to get the contractual details all together.

Monday, April 04, 2011

Books Received: March 25 - April 4

Books Received: March 25 - April 4, 2011. I'm especially amused that I got a copy of City of Ruin (Newton) and City of Ruins (Rusch). Interesting timing, that.

Friday, April 01, 2011

Review: The Malazan Book of the Fallen by Steven Erikson

I’m going to state it right out – The Malazan Book of the Fallen by Steven Erikson is the most ambitious epic fantasy series ever written – this is both its greatest strength and greatest weakness. Rather than ambition, fans of epic fantasy are much more likely to honor tradition and nostalgia, but the genre has come far from where it was effectively defined by The Lord of the Rings and fans have grown as well. These days gritty and subversion seem to be the buzz words of fantasy fans, and while The Malazan Book of the Fallen certainly meets both in numerous ways, it really is much more.

It’s been ambitious since the start when Erikson proposed Malazan to be a 10-book series back in the 1990s – there was never any trilogy-creep, this was always going this long. But of course it isn’t so simple – the series is not Erikson’s alone. The Malazan world was co-created with Ian C. Esslemont who has written three books of his own that support the series, with three more to come. While Erikson’s 10-book series is complete, once Esslemont finishes his parts it will be more complete, perhaps making this review a bit premature.

The Malazan world has its origins in Dungeon’s and Dragons and GURPS role-playing campaigns played out by Erikson and Esslemont and has since grown in ambition. In many ways the series is meant to be more of a response to epic fantasy than a part of it. Not in the same ‘FU’ manor as The First Law by Joe Abercrombie, but again as something more. Ultimately, it’s about the human condition and the cost of civilization, but again it’s more. The series is also about deception in something of a post-modern, meta-fictional way. While the foreshadowing is present, and even a rubric to the whole series buried in one of its volumes, it’s still difficult to see beneath surface. It’s all light, darkness and shadow with more than a bit of sleight of hand.

However, don’t let me mislead you into thinking that it’s not epic fantasy, because it is. Like most epic fantasy, this is a book of war and magic. And the magic plays an incredibly important role – it’s powerful…all-powerful. The scope and horror of magic is laid out from the beginning, while the mechanics of it remain an enigma. In every book we meet a hidden power that rises to tremendous, spectacular heights. Of course that’s the point of it – readers may want to call foul, may want to shout dues ex machina, but they miss the point.

The series begins as a tale of a conquering Malazan Empire that has overextended itself. In Gardens of the Moon (Book Depository, Powell’s Books, Indiebound) the reader is dumped strait into the middle of it all without the typical build-up. This can be exhilarating, overwhelming, and off-putting, though I found it immensely rewarding. We get a feel for a mix of races and species that is huge and a rich world history with gods and other powerful immortals that literally walk the land, interfering with mortal lives. Though some mortals interfere right back, for gods can die too. It’s through this complex tapestry that Erikson focuses on humanity. Every soldier is a philosopher, every person an everyman (or everywoman, though even with numerous female characters, the series has an overwhelming male-ness to it), with the view of it all is just as often through pawns as kings and queens.

‘These Malazans, they shame the gods themselves…’
An important point the series is put right in the series title, perhaps the most important point: The Malazan Book of the Fallen. It’s the word fallen that focuses it all. For this series is not (necessarily) about those that live to fight another day, to see another book, who survive the ultimate convergence of power – this series is about the people who fall along the way. The price, the toll, the compassion, the sacrifice, and eventually, the reward. This is a series where the dead tend to not go away and the fallen may not die. Each book itself shows something new, a new style, a new theme within the overall series, but in the end there is a method to the madness of it all.

I will remember this. I will set out scrolls and burn upon them the names of these Fallen. I will make of this work a holy tome, and no other shall be needed.
Hear them! They are humanity unfurled, laid out for all to see – if one would dare look!
There shall be a Book and it shall be written by my hand. Wheel and seek the faces of a thousand gods! None can do what I can do! Not one can give voice to this holy creation!
But this is not bravado. For this, my Book of the Fallen, the only god worthy of its telling is the crippled one. The broken one. And has it not always been so?
I never hid my hurts.
I never disguised my dreams.
And I never lost my way.
And only the fallen can rise again.
It’s in his ambition, this response to epic fantasy that Erikson gets in trouble. Yes, it’s epic fantasy in the extreme – the magic and powers overblown, the gods both more and less than they should be, the grunt suffering through it all somehow becomes the most powerful of all. It chafes fans of epic fantasy. It’s supposed to. Fans often decry the seeming over-emphasis on suffering, marching, the camp-fire conversations, the little people. While the action is incredible, it is interspersed with long and tedious ramblings that become philosophical and at times down-right didactic. While Erikson certainly over-indulges himself, many fans seemingly miss the point. Or perhaps they don’t care about the point. Many will fail to complete the journey of the series, many will be upset, disappointed, even angry with Erikson for what he writes. The criticisms often wielded only show Erikson how much they missed the point. Erikson plays with this in the text – often proactively for areas he knows that will bring especially pointed criticism. He knows these books aren’t for everyone, and that if everyone likes what you are doing, you are doing it wrong. But it clearly it stings, and sometimes Erikson seems to lash out in response.

‘Sad truth,’ Kruppe said – his audience of none sighing in agreement – ‘that a tendency towards verbal excess can so defeat the precision of meaning. That intent can be so well disguised in majestic plethora of nuance, of rhythm both serious and mocking, of this penchant for self-referential slyness, that the unwitting simply skip on past – imagining their time to be so precious, imagining themselves above all manner of conviction, save that of their own witty perfection. Sigh and sigh again.

Ultimately, there is a hope to it all – this is not the nihilistic proclamation so many claim. It’s a grand plan for the better of humanity. Only at times the darkness, the faults and flaws, and humanity itself seemingly deserve no hope.

Hedge was waiting, seated on one of the tilted standing stones. ‘Hood take us all,’ he said, eyeing Fiddler as he approached. ‘They did it – her allies – they did what she needed them to do.’
Aye. And how many people died for [it]?’
…’Little late to be regretting all that now, Fid.’
‘…They used all of us Hedge.’
‘That’s what gods do, aye. So you don’t like it? Fine, but listen to me. Sometimes, what they want – what they need us to do – sometimes it’s all right. I mean, it’s the right thing to do. Sometimes, it makes us better people.’
‘You really believe that?’
‘And when we’re better people, we make better gods.’
Fiddler looked away. ‘It’s hopeless, then. We can stuff a god with every virtue we got, it still won’t make us any better, will it? Because we’re not good with virtues, Hedge.’
‘Most of the time, aye, we’re not. But maybe then, at our worst, we might look up, we might see that god we made out of the best in us. Not vicious, not vengeful, not arrogant or spiteful. Not selfish, not greedy. Just clear-eyed, with no time for all our rubbish. The kind of god to give us a slap in the face for being such shits.’
…’Ever the optimist, you’
This review both coincidently and intentionally reads like the series itself – perhaps full of insight, perhaps full of bullshit, always seeming a bit of mess. It’s overly long (at least compared to what I tend to write), it’s defensive, dismissive, disagreeable and likely to piss a few people off. The review is journey, a misinterpretation, and it gets it right. And it’s ever self-aware, perhaps to a fault. It’s the most ambitious review I’ve ever written.

The Malazan Book of the Fallen isn’t for everyone, and in many ways it may not be for fans of epic fantasy. While it is absolutely for the fans. And it’s the most ambitious epic fantasy out there – period. Though the Malazan series by Erikson is over, something of an epilogue remains to be written by Esslemont and Erikson has promised two more trilogies and a continuation of the novellas set in the world. The dead don’t stay dead. The fallen may not be who you think they are and can rise again. Perfect.

And now the page before us blurs.
An age is done. The book must close.
We are abandoned to history.
Raise high one more time the tattered standard
Of the Fallen. See through the drifting smoke
To the dark stains upon the fabric.
This is the blood of our lives, this is the
Payment of our deeds, all soon to be
We were never what people could be.
We were only what we were.

Remember us
Untitled poem at the end of The Crippled God

Something Completely Different

The calendar tells me it's spring, the snow has melted from the yard, no more snow is expected (at least for now), and I've seen fresh sprouts in the garden from the hops, parsley and strawberries. So, something spring-like for your enjoyment:

A market in York, England. I imagine there has been a market here for hundreds of years - and to someone who lives in the American west, that is pretty well unfathomable.


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